On Monday afternoon, I was sitting with two colleagues — Rev John McCulloch, Minister of St Andrew’s Jerusalem, and Peter Hehle, General Manager of the Scots Hotel — in a tent in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Khair in the South Hebron Hills, drinking sweet sage tea and chatting with a couple of the villagers, Awdah and Aziz.
Aziz works as an engineer in Hebron, and he told us how, when the electricity from the solar panels runs out, he sometimes goes in the evenings to read his engineering books under one of the street lights near the perimeter fence at the nearby Israeli settlement of Karmel. While he studies, a guard from the settlement often comes up and asks him to leave, claiming he might be a security threat.
The village of Umm al-Khair and the settlement of Karmel are directly adjacent to one another, but the contrast between the two is jarring and serves as a stark example of the injustice of settlement expansions in the West Bank. Street lights line the paved streets of Karmel, and electrical wires pass over Umm al-Khair to connect the settlement’s chicken farm and greenhouses on the other side. Karmel’s colourful gardens are well irrigated and flourish even in the hot dry summer months. While just metres away, the village’s only source of electricity are donated solar panels, and water must be brought in.
Umm al-Khair is located in Area C of the West Bank and therefore under the control of Israel’s Civil Administration. Building permits are rarely given to communities like it, so their structures are considered illegal and under constant threat of demolition. When I had visited in October 2017, even one of the goat pens had a demolition order on it.
We were there on Monday to make a delivery.
The idea came a couple of months ago when John, his wife Annette, Peter and I were having dinner at the Scots Hotel after the evening service at St Andrew’s Tiberias. We were sharing impressions of life and work in Israel and Palestine and discussing ways our churches, institutions, and partners can be more closely linked.
John and Annette had recently visited Umm al-Khair and described what they had seen. They spoke particularly of the children they had met, playing football barefoot on a dusty, rocky makeshift pitch. They explained that the playground near the community centre has no covering to protect the kids from the searing summer sun. The village wants to develop its community centre and start a kindergarten but has few supplies.
Peter offered to take us to the Scots Hotel storage area the next morning to see if there was anything there that might be of use to the community of Umm al-Khair. The following week, John visited the village and showed them pictures of chairs, tables and desks, large sun shades, sun umbrellas, and huge carpets and asked if they might be interested. They said they would put to good use whatever we could send.
Through the hotel maintenance manager from Kfar Kanna, we found a local firm who could transfer the goods across the border to the West Bank. We involved the congregation as well, explaining the situation of Umm al-Khair and asking them if they would be willing to pay for the delivery. They were all supportive and agreed to cover the cost.
On 23 July, the lorry arrived, and hotel staff helped to carry the furniture from the storage area and prepare the necessary documents in Hebrew for the transfer. None of us were sure if the delivery would actually make it through the checkpoint, and our concern grew when the lorry was turned back in the Jordan Valley.
John, Peter and I met up in Jerusalem and joined the lorry just before it crossed the Beit Jala checkpoint, driving behind, ready to stop if there were any problems. Thankfully we made it through, and as we pulled into the village in the late afternoon, children surrounded the truck curious to see what it contained. We were greeted warmly by Awdah who showed us the library and community centre.
The children were quickly recruited to help unload. A pot of tea appeared seemingly from nowhere. And when the work was done, we were invited into the shade of one of the tents to rest and eat.
There Aziz shared his plans with us. Cover the playground with the tarpaulins we brought. Develop the library. Create a computer learning centre out of an old bus. Build a basketball court. Start a kindergarten because there’s no provision for the youngest children. Source a ground covering for the football field. On and on, he shared his vision for the village, his face lit up with enthusiasm.
As the sun crept towards the horizon, he and Awdah took us for a tour of the village. They showed us how they had recycled and up-cycled and creatively reimagined uses for ordinary objects. A chicken coop made from an old refrigerator. (‘We use the refrigerator shelves for our bbq sometimes too,’ Awdah said. ‘The plastic covering burns off quickly and then it’s perfect!’) A skip filled with chicken feed. The front screen of a fan, with colourful yarn woven tightly through it to make a bowl. Trees they had planted grow next to the football pitch, and a bench sat next to one surrounded by the only patch of green in the village. ‘Water drains here from the settlement,’ Awdah explained smiling.
No one knows what the future holds for Umm al-Khair, whether it will be demolished yet again next week or next month or next year. But still they dream and plan and create and envision a future that will be better for their children. This is their way of non-violently resisting the deep inequalities and injustices surrounding them.
In the hotel restaurant, the decision to help came so easily and it just made sense: the hotel has so many good quality items just sitting in storage gathering dust, and this was a good way for them to be used. But it was when I heard Aziz say quietly to John, ‘No one has ever helped us in this way before. Thank you,’ that I realised he wasn’t talking about what we had brought. John’s friendship with Aziz and Awdah was crucial because we were there offering solidarity, not paternalism. They had extended to us an invitation to join them in dreaming and planning and creating and envisioning a different and better future, and we had accepted, in a small way participating in their resistance movement of hope and imagination.
I look forward to returning soon, to see how Awdah’s creativity, Aziz’s engineer’s mind, and the women’s eye for beauty combine to recycle, up-cycle and reimagine uses for the things we brought. But in the meantime, there’s still much work we all can do, spreading the story of Umm al-Khair and villages like it, and continuing to advocate for change to the political systems that perpetuate occupation and oppression.
You can read more about Awdah’s story here.
Here is an explanation of planning policy in the West Bank.
Another Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar has been in the media recently, and due to international pressure, the demolition has been postponed. This shows the impact the international community can have on the Israeli government, but there are also concerns that once the media attention has died down, the demolition will go ahead.